This is an excerpt from The 4 Facets of Grief: Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World, and Find New Pathways To Joy, which is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B073ZMKKH2.
The first step is to figure out what acceptance really means. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, acceptance is the quality or state of being accepted or acceptable, as in approval. It further adds, acceptance can mean to endure without protest or reaction; to regard as proper, normal, or inevitable; to recognize as true. When my heart is screaming “NO!” and rejecting every aspect of a situation, what would it mean if I had to accept it? That I approve or agree with what happened? That I’m fine with it?
No, there are some things in life that I would never want and that I could never be fine with – my son’s death for example. I will never like it, approve of it, or endorse it. I will also never get over it, if that means feeling, thinking, and acting exactly like I did before he died. The fact that this huge life transition was forced upon me in a most tragic way means I could not possibly embrace this change. Yet, here I was, in the midst of a profound shift and I couldn’t quite figure out how to proceed.
All these years later, I have arrived at a definition more in line with the second dictionary meaning that works for me, and I offer it to you. Acceptance means getting to the point where I acknowledge my reality without shock, denial, or resistance. It doesn’t mean I’m pleased about the situation or that I don’t care. And it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t continue to have strong feelings about it. Acceptance to me is intimately knowing and understanding my own reality; facing my truth and staring it in the eye. And reality includes both thoughts and emotions.
Moving beyond shock is a normal process that obviously takes time. When my son died, it was a long time before the news was old and a familiar part of me. Even when someone is ill, or you learn other distressing facts, there is still that moment when you realize your world is irrevocably altered. I’ve found that the same thought that is shocking at one moment seems much less intense once it’s old news. I remember yearning for that time to arrive.
Moving beyond resistance requires some resolve. Let’s face it: it makes sense to resist pain and tragedy. In the beginning, feeling resistant toward heartbreak is entirely reasonable. The difficulty comes if we remain resistant to our circumstances and keep trying to hold onto some version of life as it used to be. Ongoing resistance can lead to enduring denial.
Moving beyond denial can be tricky because a certain amount of denial at the time of a crisis is adaptive and protects us from an overload of pain. Denial becomes problematic when it continues and keeps us from ultimately dealing with our feelings. I remember those first feelings of unreality – that sense of things being surreal. It was impossible to wrap my mind around what had happened. But eventually, the truth of the situation took hold, and that’s when I began to feel all my emotions.
This is the time to explore our emotions. Try not to be afraid of or judge your feelings; take them out, turn them upside down and inside out, look at them from all sides. Share them, take breaks from them, and get to know them as well as you can.
Just naming emotions seems to calm the fight-flight-or-freeze response that can keep us on high alert. So what is a feeling? Here’s a handy guide. A word is a feeling if the phrase “I feel ___” can be replaced with “I am ___.” For example, “I feel cold” expresses a feeling and I can accurately replace it with “I am cold.” Similarly, “I am frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, hurt, lost, discombobulated,” etc., all communicate feelings.
Once you identify your feelings, try not to judge them. Remember they are not good or bad, they just are. While certain emotions may be more pleasant or unpleasant to experience, the fact that you have a certain feeling is actually a neutral statement and not (for example) a commentary on your worth as an individual.
Having our emotions validated is a powerfully healing experience. Validation refers to telling someone how you feel and having them acknowledge it and hold it without trying to make it go away. Validating statements include anything we can say yes to.
“You’re so sad.” Yes
“This is such a hard time.” Yes.
“You really miss him (or her).” Yes.
Such statements, while seemingly obvious, make us feel heard, seen, understood, and supported. It reminds us that even in the most difficult of circumstances we are not alone, which is comforting.
Validation does not include statements that try to push us into a more positive state.
“At least he didn’t suffer.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“You should be over it by now.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
While it’s important to give yourself permission to feel your feelings, you also get to choose the moments and duration of your emotional explorations. Some feelings are difficult to tolerate for very long, and some are inconvenient to experience in certain settings. As long as you do not deny what you feel and you don’t refuse to feel, you do get to choose when, where, with whom, and for how long you attend to your feelings in any given session.
Did you know that under certain circumstances you can choose a feeling? Again, make sure you’re not ignoring what’s organically there, but there may be some moments when you decide to try on a positive feeling that’s different from your natural state during times of challenge.
Not only are we being asked to accept a new situation, we also have to accept a new version of ourselves. Accepting oneself doesn’t mean we’re perfect or finished evolving.
It only means we recognize where we’re at right now and it’s okay.
What is Healing?
When I was a kid and fell off my bike, I wasn’t surprised to see a scraped knee and feel the sting of wounded flesh (and pride!). It didn’t take long for a scab to form, and even though I didn’t like that crusty and stiff brown cover, I knew it meant I was healing. Depending on the injury, there was sometimes a scar, but one fact remained clear: my body had an amazing ability to heal.
Fast forward an unmentionable number of years, and here I am trying to make sense of other kinds of injuries and our capacity to heal from them. It’s true, I’m thinking about much more complex suffering than just a skinned knee. Do our wounded hearts, minds, and spirits also have that healing ability? I absolutely believe they do.
Healing is not the same as a cure. Many of us get hung up on the word cure because it implies “good as new,” “as if the problem never happened” or that the suffering can never return. Since we can’t predict the future, the idea of healing seems to more appropriately fit real life. It acknowledges what we’ve been through, our learning to cope with reality, and our sense of gaining some insight about ourselves as we go through life.
Rather than being a one-time event, I believe healing is a process in which we engage whenever we’re trying to recover from a painful loss. Since this pain usually involves some type of unwelcome change that requires giving up familiar (and perhaps life-long) thoughts or behavior patterns, the healing process will naturally impact our ongoing relationships and ability to function into the future.
Looking back at all of my unwelcome transitions, I recognize a consistent practice that has benefited me: telling my story. I felt a need to give voice to my experience to help make it real, and since I happen to be comfortable writing, journaling came naturally to me. Some people use blogs for this purpose, and I think it’s a great way to tell your story.
I also needed to talk about my journey. I talked to friends, relatives, and my therapist. As I told my story, I felt validated in just being listened to. Even though there are some losses no one can understand unless they’ve been through them, I could feel my listeners’ care and compassion.
This meant the world to me and was part of my healing.
At various times I created scrapbooks, photo albums, and collages that conveyed certain aspects of a given story. I know others who paint, make jewelry, and write music to communicate their experience. There really is no limit to the creative ways we can express ourselves, and they’re all good. I find creativity to be satisfying and healing, and I highly recommend it. Whatever activities or projects you choose to begin, don’t think of Acceptance as a destination at which you’ll arrive. Accepting is an ongoing process that changes and evolves with us as we continue to grow.